The 2019 elections, which I am convinced some voters don’t even know is going on, might well change the course of Virginia politics. It could even have national implications. However, sorting it out, and making any forecast is challenging. There are just that many factors in play. Oh, and don’t forget, because it’s one of the few elections going on this year it’s bound to be viewed as a bellwether in assessing how the Republicans might do nationally in the 2020 election. That’s a lot riding on one off-year election.
But, first, let’s get oriented. Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly are up for election this year and both have narrow Republican majorities. The Senate is elected every four years. The last time all 40 Senate seats were up was in 2015 when the Republicans managed to hold onto a slim majority. The House was another story. In 2017 the Democrats, almost in a miracle swing, took 15 seats. It was a near complete reversal of fortune. Now the Republicans only have a one seat majority and that’s at risk.
The Democrats believe they’re on a roll. They won big in 2017, they took back three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, in that same election, easily held his seat. So, yes, they have a lot of reason to be optimistic about 2019.
However, it’s not that easy. The 2019 elections will be one of the lowest-profile elections there are. Turnout is going to low and the reason takes a bit of explaining. It’s what some in Virginia call an off-off year election. Unlike most states we elect our governor in an odd year when there isn’t a national election. And in between, when there is no statewide election at all, the House of Delegates comes up for election, they serve two-year terms, and so does the State Senate, which serve four-year terms. No surprise, it doesn’t get much attention. It’s a legacy from a time when Virginia’s leaders did their best to keep turnout low, through poll taxes, a challenging registration process and, in one remnant of that era, our off-year elections. That way, they could maintain more control. Indeed, at one time, Virginia once had the second-lowest voter participation rate in the country.
Those bad old days have passed, but the off-year elections are still a part of our political landscape. This makes it hard for either party to get its voters mobilized. This year however, with so much on the line, millions are being spent on identifying and registering friendly voters and then encouraging them to get to the polls. I live out in the sticks, and already have had three candidates and several volunteers come to my door.
There are, however, some unstable variables in this election. During the 2017 and 2018 elections Trump figured heavily in the voter’s decision making. However, those were statewide elections. The larger races and their down-ticket cousins provided an excellent outlet for anti-Trump passion. That said, Trump is still unpopular in Virginia, but the question is, will the voters, without any big-ticket races, still choose to register their dissatisfaction at the local level?
Then there is another variable. At the moment, it seems to have slipped from the popular memory. Which is surprising since it only happened a few months ago, but Gov. Ralph Northam, the leader of his party, who expected to be campaigner-in-chief this fall, isn’t doing that much fundraising or campaigning. The yearbook scandal, where his page shows two men, one in a Klan costume and the other in black face, almost forced his resignation. Maybe it should have, but he has soldiered on and seems to be rebuilding some positive support. But, he’s still not all that welcomed at Democratic events. Will this scandal come to the forefront again? Will the absence of the state’s number one Democrat in the campaign for the General Assembly hurt the Democrats? Probably, at least a little, but that said, Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have all stepped up to fill in. So, maybe the damage won’t be that bad.
Finally, there is the redistricting. This was a court ordered response, in a case called Bethume vs. Virginia Board of Elections, that realigned some 26 districts because they had been drawn to limit the impact of minority voters. As the result several districts, from five to 10, are now competitive for the Democrats. Even Speaker of the House Kirk Cox’s district is on the list of new marginal seats.
What do these variables add up to? At the moment, while they would argue for a Democratic win in both chambers this November, there are just enough uncertainties, including turnout, to make it difficult to give much of a forecast. Let’s just see who can knock on the most doors and make the most phone calls and then maybe it will be time to make a prediction.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at email@example.com.